Jenny 8 Lee is a metropolitan reporter at the New York Times and author of the extremely funny and informative The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. As an American Born Chinese woman, Lee grew up eating both home cooked Chinese food and American Chinese food at restaurants. She had always noticed, despite “Chinese” as a descriptor, there was a significant difference between the two.
“I thought it was just that my mom was a bad cook,” she laughs, referring to her mother’s home cooked Chinese food.
However, it wasn’t until she traveled to China for a year after college, where she started noticing patterns in how Chinese people ate food, how Chinese Americans ate food, and how Americans ate Chinese food.
It was, as Lee says, “an impetus for me to think about Chinese Food in a more critical way.”
The book details Lee’s travels around the world in search of answers to such confounding questions as “where do fortune cookies come from?”, “who is General Tso?”, and “where do Chinese restaurant workers come from?”
Chinese food is ubiquitous and as Lee says – it can be found anywhere that there is oxygen. Or even in places where there isn’t oxygen – Chinese food is even served on the space shuttle menu.
Lee shares some of her five takeaways about American Chinese food below:
1. Broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable.
Despite all the “Chinese” dishes with broccoli – beef with broccoli, stir fried broccoli with scallops, and many others – broccoli is not a Chinese vegetable. It became popular in American Chinese food in the 1920s. There is Chinese broccoli, or kai lan, which is related to kale.
“I can guarantee that General Tso never saw a stalk of broccoli in his life,” exclaims Lee.
2. Chinese takeout boxes exist only in America.
The quintessential cardboard Chinese takeout boxes as popularized on television (Friends, Sex and the City, Seinfeld, and beyond) can only be found in America. They were not a Chinese creation, nor are they available anywhere else in the world. What are Chinese restaurants’ usual takeout container of choice? Styrofoam clamshell boxes.
3. Americans really love chicken.
In most American Chinese dishes, restaurants cater to Americans’ love for chicken. Chicken balls, chicken and broccoli, General Tao’s chicken. And if it’s deep fried, it’s even better.
4. Americans don’t like food that reminds them of something that was alive.
American Chinese food is very much dissociated with the food from where it came from. No one wants to know if an animal swam, walked, or moved. As far as people know in the US, Chinese food is born in a Styrofoam tray – there are no feet, ears, claws, lungs, heads or blood hanging about. Meanwhile, the Chinese like the “holistic” animal – they don’t let anything go to waste.
5. There are dramatic variations between regions for American Chinese food.
American Chinese food varies significantly by region. In the US, even fried rice can look different depending on where it is from. In New England it’s brown, whereas in Miami it’s yellow, but in the Midwest it’s white. In the south you can find Chow Mein, and in other places only Chow Fun. This is largely an accident of history, dependent on regional flavours or even the mobility of restaurant workers who move one recipe from one region to another.